Book Review – ‘Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor’ by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

One good look at the leadership teams of the Fortune 500 companies tells us that this is one of the last surviving bastions to be conquered by the diversity and inclusion initiatives. In the modern day corporate world the representation of women and minorities in places of power such as the Boardroom is still fairly low. Governments of course are stressing and urging corporations to improve the ratio of those underrepresented. In some cases there are government oversight committees to monitor this, whereas in other cases government even mandates a specific percentage of board members to be females. However, despite all the best intentions and efforts by both the corporations who genuinely want to improve upon this ratio and governments, success seems elusive especially if the last 40 years of corporate history is to go by.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, CEO at Center for Talent Innovation, a Manhattan-based think tank, listed on the Thinkers50 list, the author of this very important book, ‘Forget a mentor, Find a sponsor’ is attempting to address the burning issue, of limited inclusion and diversity in senior positions, with a sense of urgency. Women, and people of Colour, Asians, and Hispanics loosely constitute the underrepresented in the US corporations and mostly same groups also constitute the lowly represented in the UK and other developed economies. While the book highlights these specific groups more often than others, the advice offered to advance careers is truly universal for anybody across cultural backgrounds, geographies, or companies. The advice can be applied at any stage of career, of course the sooner the better.

The heart of the book is focussing on understanding the underlying reasons for the current lack of diversity, and then offering critical advice on what is the best way for individuals to successfully navigate through this maze and have a long successful career. The central point that the book is advocating is to have real powerful senior allies in the organization who not only offer you advice when you need it, but who do everything possible to take up your cause and promote you internally.

We are all quite familiar with mentors and we understand the role they play. Mentors are truly the kind of people who want to help us but don’t expect anything in return. They do this because they either like us or because of host of other reasons such as we remind them of themselves or that they are repaying for the mentoring they received when they were growing in their careers. Whatever is the reason for the mentor to offer help, they do it for selfless motives, and so the direction of inputs is only one-way, i.e., directed towards the mentee. Mentor however is not the same as the powerful senior ally in the organization who vigorously promotes you, of course the two can be the same person but most generally they aren’t same people.

Now powerful allies promoting people are actually called sponsors and not mentors. And secondly, such sponsors aren’t too common in businesses. To have someone promote you internally out of the way means a lot more than the person liking you. This relationship alone has the ability to uplift and transform careers. To build and sustain such powerful relationships requires a lot of inputs from the person looking to develop such relations. This sort of relationship building requires a structured approach to understanding the company and its key people and then understanding what role you play in it that can be of interest to these powerful people. It requires a strategy to reach out to those people and be able to illicit their interest.

On the face of it, getting sponsorship might appear daunting, after all why would anyone senior go out of the way to promote you? The answer is fairly simple. Sponsors don’t help or promote you because they like you, although that might be one of the reasons, but they do it because they see in you a huge potential to succeed and are willing to bet on you. So, one of the key ingredients to getting sponsorship is stellar performance that might interest the sponsor. However, the fundamental reason why someone will sponsor is because the person as much as is helping you is also helping himself. While this might sound surprising but the fact is, the sponsor sponsors someone to extend his personal brand and legacy. A sponsor is someone who is constantly building his ‘A’ Team and wants the best talent on board.

A brilliant performance from you extends the sponsor’s personal brand and his legacy is carried forward. The second component in getting sponsorship is providing an unflinching loyalty to your sponsor, as you are burnishing your sponsor’s brand all the time, therefore loyalty to it is very important. So to get sponsorship superlative performance and absolute loyalty are the key ingredients. What happens when these two things are taken care of? The sponsor goes out of his way to get you the next promotion, gets you stretch responsibilities, removes any hindrances, helps you get the legroom you need to take calculated risks, protects you when you fail, provides you an unvarnished feedback, introduces you to other powerful people and helps you build your own network. So a sponsor quite literally turbo-charges your career and puts you on a real fast track.

Now, the structured approach to getting sponsorship involves scanning the leadership landscape in the organization and identifying powerful leaders at least 2-3 levels above you, who have a view of your work and performance and who might have an interest in your area of work. Next obviously you reach out and get in front of the sponsor, and when the time comes clearly communicate your work achievements, your desire to rapidly grow, and paint a compelling vision of future. The ideal approach is obviously to try to have more than one sponsor, this way when a sponsor moves places you are still under another sponsor and are not suddenly left out. Now all this might sound a bit scheming or political, but the truth is hard work alone doesn’t always translate into commensurate career growth. People often work extremely hard and tend to think that their work will get noticed and will be rewarded, but this approach generally seems to have given only moderate success. Sponsorship on the other hand clearly establishes a mutually rewarding relationship and therefore the chances of success go up significantly.

While the book is very nice and easy to read, it feels a bit stretched. Perhaps the contents and crux could easily have been summed up in a critical essay format. What does take a bit a space are the personal stories that are shared intermittently, and these stories surely inspire to think on the lines of logic that Sylvia proposes.

The book is a great piece of research and is highly insightful. It opens up a discussion on a topic that is sometimes not easy to broach. More importantly it opens up people to think a bit differently about managing their careers, and it can probably open companies to think differently to tap into a diverse and highly ambitious workforce. After all a highly engaged and culturally diverse group can be a real competitive advantage at a time when more and more companies are expanding internationally. But the most important part of the book still is the guidance that it provides on developing ones career and avoiding some of the potential pitfalls that prevents people from harnessing and reaching their true potential.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is a famous economist and founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a non-profit think-tank, she is the author or co-author of 11 books. Her most recent book is ‘Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor’.

This book is available in many formats. So go ahead and read it!

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